The current exhibition at the University Art Gallery, titled “Beyond Classification,” is an examination of the social and religious norms that exist in modern Egypt. Works included in the show come from eight different artists, all of whom are women, presented in the form of video projections (with accompanying audio), photography, and graphic design. The curator, Dr. Nagla Samir, came to campus and spoke with faculty, students, and the community both informally and at a formal conversation on January 23. Dr. Samir is an Assistant Professor of Art and Design at the American University in Cairo. She has been involved in social and political movements in Egypt and, as well as producing her own work, curates and studies the work of other artists currently working in and around Cairo.
Assembling a show and transporting it to the United States was no easy feat for Dr. Samir. An obvious obstacle being the distance, Samir worked with professors Pond, Malde, and Maclauren to print and frame photographic work in Sewanee, and to install video using equipment from Sewanee’s Media Services department. In addition to the practical challenges of moving and showing the artwork, other concerns were also raised. Samir spoke about one of these concerns during a discussion with Dr. Thompson’s Contemporary Art class; Samir was asked if assembling an exhibition to be shown in the states resulted in any content changes being made by the artists. Samir informed the class that few changes were made to the work for its display in America; she wanted to show a realistic view of the art being made in Egypt and did not adjust the individual content specifically for an American audience. Samir was asked similar questions at the event hosted by the University Gallery. Specifically, she was asked about artistic censorship in Egypt. Samir described her efforts to show and support art despite the social climate at any particular time in Egypt, “I am the trouble-maker,” she said. Although censorship could have posed a problem with some of the artwork that Samir is involved in and supports, she does not endorse the view of Egyptian censorship that American media may portray. The policies around censorship described by Samir were usually overlooked in the case of art that is off the street, and in private galleries.
One of the biggest obstacles that Dr. Samir sought to overcome was the media perception of Egypt in the United States. In her presentation with the University Art Gallery, Samir showed two covers from Time magazine. The first, from 2011, features a cover saying, “The Generation Changing the World,” in reference to Egyptians at this time. The second cover that she showed was from a 2013 issue of Time. This cover stated “World’s Best Protesters, World’s Worst Democrats.” Samir addressed this change in perception, pointing out that the parts of Egypt that Americans regularly see are the parts that the media pick and choose. The perception of Egypt changes rapidly, and this results in a lack of continuity in how (and what) the world sees when Egypt is concerned. The work featured in the exhibition varies greatly, but contains common elements reflecting the ways in which we “classify” people. In this case we see the major categories of gender and religion.
Upon naming the exhibition, Samir considered several names before deciding on “Beyond Classification.” The first, she said, was “In her shoes,” a fitting name for a show comprising of art which would empower and unite women. Samir expressed an issue with these associations. She did not want the work to only show an identity based on gender. Her inspiration for the current name of the exhibition came from a piece of graffiti in Cairo. The stenciled black spray paint showed a stylized silhouette of three women in a row. The first woman was shown wearing a veil covering all but her eyes, called a niqab. The next woman was shown wearing a scarf covering her hair, head, shoulders, and neck (a hijab).
The last woman was shown with her hair and face exposed, not wearing a veil or scarf “like me,” said Samir. Under the graffiti was a phrase written in Arabic that roughly translates to “Do not classify us.” This simple statement showing women who, although dressed differently, were the same resonated with Samir. Eventually the title “Beyond Classification” seemed to fit perfectly. The works included in the show are difficult to describe adequately. They show the audience the artists’ experience, as well as their interests in Egyptian culture. The experiences have shaped them as Egyptians, as women, and as unique individuals. The videos and prints shown truly draw in the viewer to experience them both individually, and as compared to each other. The artists certainly have something to say to those who view their work. The artwork will be on display through April 12. Specific descriptions of the work and the artists are available on the Sewanee website.